by Benjamin Collinger
SAN ANTONIO — The Rev. John C. Hagee strode to center stage of Cornerstone Church, a 22,000 member congregation and the seat of a multimedia evangelical empire. It was the weekend before the Fourth of July, and the 78-year-old pastor stood poised to deliver his weekly oration on current affairs and biblical prophecy.
He was flanked by the Israeli and American flags, two stoic security guards, and two jumbotron-like screens. Beside me sat a Vietnam War veteran who returned to Cornerstone for the first time since 1985, a couple on their second visit, and many of the church’s faithful members. Hagee’s congregation had been warmed up by a half-hour of soulful Christian rock.
“If God is not in what you’re doing, stop it! If God is not in what you’re saying, shut your mouth! If God’s not going where you’re going, don’t go there!” the Pastor exclaimed with the authoritative cadence and tone that he has honed over decades. Cornerstone’s flock of around 5,000 that day cried “Amen!” in every form of south Texas drawl one can hear near San Antonio.
Hagee’s sermon, which he repeatedly advertised as an excerpt of his new book, The Last Empire, was an emphatic example of the style and worldview that have made him one of the most popular and influential evangelical preachers of his generation. The pastor made his opinion of nearly every controversial political issue clear.
In the same sermon, Hagee argued that a “new world order is right now organizing riots in the streets of America,” and that same order is intent on flooding the United States with illegal immigrants. Immigration, he said, “will produce millions of welfare deadbeats demanding all of these free things. It will be a socialist chaos that will destroy America. It will lead to the destruction of our economy, and a dictatorship.”
Alternating between Bible verses and political commentary, the pastor explained why “capitalism is under attack,” and the news media is copying “Hitler’s playbook” in order to “silence those who are standing up for America.” He also said that “Satan’s palace in New York City is the United Nations” because of its actions toward Israel.
The theology that links each of these concepts is dispensationalism: a belief that time and current events have an order that correspond to scripture’s narrative structure. In other words, every event occurs according to biblical prophecy. There is perhaps no better illustration of Hagee’s unshakable commitment to dispensationalism than his advocacy for the State of Israel. Over four decades, he has founded one of the most powerful Christian Zionist organizations, given millions to Israeli causes, and seen many key events in the Jewish State’s history coincide with his own life.
American evangelicals have widely viewed Israel’s existence and progress over the last century as evidence of a divine plan according to scripture. Following the tradition of Genesis 12:3, Hagee’s followers believe that “Christians should bless and comfort Israel and the Jewish people” according to the brochure handed to me as I entered the church.
After joining a nascent alliance between American evangelicals and the Israeli Right in the late 1970s, Hagee has become perhaps the most prominent Christian Zionist in the world, and simultaneously, a harbinger of his movement’s waning strength. The historical and political undercurrents of the evangelical and Christian Zionist movements make Hagee one of the most underrated political figures in American life. His brand, advocacy for Israel, and compelling style support his influence on a movement that feels under attack.
The Promise of 1967
The 1967 Arab-Israeli war lasted only six days and ended with Israel’s capture of the Sinai Peninsula, Gaza Strip, West Bank, Old City of Jerusalem, and the Golan Heights. The war dealt a death blow to secular Arab nationalism, led to a rise of Islamic fundamentalism, and cemented many of the most contentious modern issues in the Middle East.
For American evangelicals like Hagee, 1967 was a miraculous event with prophetic significance. It reinvigorated their enthusiasm for Israel. Before 1967, the coalition of American support for the Jewish State was comprised primarily of Jews and mainline protestants. Leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. and Reinhold Niebuhr formed the base of Christian support.
“For a lot of these mainline protestants, Israel before 1967 was a beleaguered underdog with many survivors of the Holocaust. Once Israel conquered all of this territory, a lot of mainline protestants started criticising it as an imperial and colonial power. From an Israeli side, they see their core support fracture,” Dan Hummel explained to me. Hummel is a Kingdon Fellow at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and author of a forthcoming book on the American evangelical alliance with Israel.
Rabbi Marc H. Tanenbaum, national inter-religious affairs director of the American Jewish Committee, remarked that the Jewish community felt abandoned by Protestants after 1967. “There was a vacuum in public support for Israel that began to be filled by the fundamentalist and evangelical Christians,” Tanenbaum told the New York Times in 1983. That vacuum was filled by eager leaders like Hagee, who as a boy heard of Israel’s independence in 1948 over the radio in Texas. He recalled being “mesmerized” and realized that “the birth of the State of Israel confirmed the accuracy of the Bible prophecy.” As Hagee explained in a 2017 sermon, “supporting Israel is not a political issue, it’s a Bible issue.”
Billy Graham, perhaps Hagee’s closest religious and intellectual predecessor, became friends with Prime Minister Golda Meir in Israel’s early days. When the two first met in 1960, Graham promised that he was not visiting Israel to proselytize Jews. “Rather, I was there to thank the Jewish people for proselytizing me, having put my faith in a Jew who was born in Bethlehem and raised in Nazareth. For being a nation through whom Jesus was brought to the earth in the divine plan of God,” Graham wrote. Hagee would later adopt Graham’s position against proselytizing Jews.
Around the time of Graham’s visit to Israel, Hagee was a student at Trinity University from Baytown, Texas who had descended from four generations of preachers. He was a lineman on the football team earning a degree in physical education. As a sophomore in 1962, Hagee was a starting guard in the “Bandito” unit. In November of that year, according to the school’s newspaper, he was nursing a separated shoulder in advance of Trinity’s homecoming game against Abilene Christian. A teammate took his place and the Tigers lost the game by a single point; it was the second to last game in a 1-8 season.
Hagee never had a winning season during his collegiate football career. He coached several sports at Nimitz Middle School in San Antonio after graduation and later earned a master’s degree in educational administration from what is now known as the University of North Texas. A year before the momentous events of 1967, he returned to San Antonio and founded a church that was based in his home. The tenacity and strength he learned playing football transferred visibly to the pulpit. Hagee also applied teamwork; his church soon became non-denominational in order to attract more members.
In the 1970s, the Christian Zionists’ alliance with Israeli political figures solidified. Prime Minister Menachem Begin developed a close relationship with Jerry Falwell. He invited Falwell to Israel in a private jet and later made him the first non-Jew to receive the Jabotinsky medal, an award also given to the late Holocaust survivor and writer Elie Wiesel. The Begin-Falwell connection did not create the Christian Zionist movement, but it energized the movement’s bench of preachers and activists to organize in defense of Israel. Pastor Hagee’s view of Israel coalesced after his first visit in 1976, only one year after he was nearly ousted from his church for divorcing his first wife.
“I was literally moved to tears as I began to walk the streets of Jerusalem and I remembered the historical nightmare that the Jewish people were forced to live because of organized Christianity’s brutality,” Hagee told the New York Times about his 1976 visit to Israel. His focus on Christian responsibility for the Jewish community’s suffering became a fixture of his philosophy well after 1976. Abe Levy, a former reporter for the San Antonio Express News who interviewed Hagee several times, explained to me that strong opposition to anti-Semitism in San Antonio and around the world is an aspect for which Hagee became well known.
In 1977, Christian Zionist groups published ads in major U.S. newspapers in opposition to land concessions before Egyptian President Anwar Sadat’s visit to Jerusalem. But their efforts soon began to take a more politically organized shape. As political scientists John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt explained in The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy, Israeli military victories and deeper inter-religious ties encouraged Christian evangelicals “to begin working to ensure that the United States was on the ‘right side’ as the Bible’s blueprint for the end-times unfolded.”
For dispensationalists like Hagee, such efforts must have been especially urgent given the events of 1979: Egypt and Israel signed a peace accord in March, the Iranian revolution began in April, and in November, militants calling for the overthrow of the House of Saud seized the Grand Mosque in Mecca. These were flashing red signs for a movement that believed conflict would inevitably precede the fulfillment of prophecy. Hagee’s effort to keep the United States on the “right side” began in earnest by 1981.
The Special Relationship
“The relationship, I believe, started in 1980 or 1981 when Pastor Hagee wanted to do a Night to Honor Israel. It was a time that was in reaction to either Israel’s involvement in Lebanon or the bombing of the nuclear reactor in Iraq. He felt there was a need to have a positive evening for Israel,” Rabbi Avraham Scheinberg said about the close friendship his father, Rabbi Aryeh Scheinberg, has with Hagee. Scheinberg noted that his father was one of the only Rabbis to answer the call, likely because of the evangelical community’s history of proselytizing Jews.
“It’s an event that has a proven track record of bringing Christians and Jews together in a non-threatening, non-conversionary environment that promotes genuine brotherly love,” Hagee said. Hagee’s disavowal of proselytizing Jews was quite unusual in the evangelical community when he entered public life. “Hagee essentially modified what most of us would consider traditional fundamentalist teachings in order to be more politically successful,” Dan Hummel explained.
His political savvy and ability to leverage television propelled Hagee into the public eye. The Night to Honor Israel has since hosted Elie Wiesel, Glenn Beck, Moshe Yaalon, John Bolton, and many other prominent figures (watch the most recent event here). The event was a catalyst not only for Hagee’s friendship with Scheinberg, but also for his broader alliance with pro-Israel Jews.
Hagee often creates alliances with Jews who view Israel in theological, rather than political, terms. For example, he has found common cause with Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, an American who helped found the Israeli settlement of Efrat on the West Bank. Even after Hagee suggested that God permitted the Holocaust to happen in order for Jews to come back to Israel (find a detailed account here,) Riskin defended Hagee as “a true friend of Israel and the free world.”
Hagee’s statement in 2008 caused the Republican nominee for President, John McCain, to renounce Hagee’s endorsement of his candidacy, as well as an outcry from the Jewish community. It was around this time that Hagee curtailed journalists’ access to him (his spokesperson, Ari Morgenstern, declined to comment for this article). He sought refuge in supporters like Riskin.
“Does this mean that I must necessarily agree with all of the theological positions taken by Pastor Hagee? Not at all! True friendship means that I continue to love and even partner with my friend, despite disagreeing with him on even fundamental positions of theology and ideology – as long as his views do not threaten the life or limb of innocent human beings,” Riskin wrote.
Despite garnering national attention often, Hagee’s local influence is often second to his international reach. According to the Rev. Ann Helmke, the City of San Antonio’s Community Faith-Based Liaison, Hagee is more well known in Israel than in San Antonio. “The most obvious was in introductions when I would go to some meeting [in Israel] and I say I’m from San Antonio, Texas. ‘That’s where Hagee is,’ they said every time. Israeli or Palestinian, every time.”
Despite his unfamiliar status in San Antonio, the Pastor’s financial influence in the local Jewish community is extensive. Hagee has donated $75,000 for the San Antonio Jewish Federation’s Holocaust museum, raised nearly $100 million for Israeli charities, and made many other gifts throughout the city’s Jewish community. The Rabbinical offices at Rodfei Sholom, Rabbi Scheinberg’s synagogue, bear his name.
Helmke and Levy remarked that local Jewish leaders often do not have a problem with taking donations from Hagee. Many welcome his denouncements of anti-Semitism and support for Israel. In contrast, Rabbi Mara Nathan of the reform Temple Beth-El in San Antonio was dismayed by the friendship between Scheinberg and Hagee. “Temple [Beth-El] doesn’t have anything to do with Hagee or that whole evangelical movement, particularly because he says such atrocious things about gay people, about black people. I don’t want to have a friend like that,” she told me in 2016.
Judith Norman, a professor of philosophy at Trinity University, questioned the ethics of taking donations from Hagee. Norman identified inherent anti-Semitism at the heart of Hagee’s beliefs. “He is anti-Semitic. The Jews are going to go down in flames unless we convert in the end times. It’s all pretty perverse,” she said, referencing his views on the rapture.
Dispensationalists widely believe that Jews are to return to Israel and play a role in the rapture, but only after they have been converted. As Samuel Goldman explained in God’s Country: Christian Zionism in America, “dispensationalists see Jews as tragically misguided and in need of Christ’s love.”
In a 2006 interview with Terry Gross on NPR’s Fresh Air, Hagee confirmed his belief that those who experience the rapture, and are therefore saved, must believe in Jesus Christ. “There are Jewish people who believe in Jesus Christ and there are Arabs who believe in Jesus Christ. So you don’t have to be a gentile to be a believer,” Hagee said. “But you do have to be a believer in Jesus Christ?” Gross asked. “Yes you do, to be a part of the rapture,” Hagee responded.
Some in the evangelical community have accused Hagee of heresy for not sticking to that story. In his 2007 book, In Defense of Israel, he argued that Jesus did not present himself as the Messiah to Jews, which means Jews cannot be held responsible for rejecting him as their savior. “It was Jesus who rejected the Jewish desire for him to be their Messiah,” he wrote. Hagee was accused of preaching the “dual covenant error”: the notion that Jews are saved through their own covenant with God and do not need Jesus to save them.
Religion scholar Faydra Shapiro noted that Hagee likely did not mean to deny the universal Messiahship of Christ, but instead to correct centuries of anti-Semitism in the Church. His effort backfired. To be accused of preaching the “dual covenant error” is “no doubt the most serious accusation that can be made within the evangelical movement against the activist Zionists in their midst,” Shapiro explained in 2011.
Hagee bowed to the pressure: he released a revised version in 2009 “which cannot mislead anyone about my bedrock belief that Jesus was and is Lord, Savior and Messiah.” The controversy appears not to damaged his growing multimedia empire or prominence as a defender of Israel’s right to defend itself and to build on lands seized in 1967.
Monetizing the Ministry
Pastor Hagee has generated controversy in other areas as he has built Global Evangelism Inc., Global Evangelism Television (GETV), and Grace Church of San Antonio (the names that a few of his nonprofits bear). In 2008, Earth Salts International (ESI,) a company that supplied Dead Sea bath salts and minerals to GETV for online sale, sued Hagee’s related entities.
In Bexar County court filings, the company stated that Hagee promised to market and sell their products via a global television advertising campaign, and began production in 2002 based upon that promise. Between January and February of 2003, ESI delivered the test products to GETV, and sales were a success. The company then asked Hagee about when the global campaign would begin, and were told that although GETV was involved with a 501 (c)(3) tax liability problem, the campaign would proceed as planned.
See a live stream of Hagee’s sermons above.
However, ESI’s original petition indicated that they did not hear from Hagee for the rest of 2003 despite repeated attempts at contact. By June of 2006, according to court records, Hagee was working on a deal with media mogul Rupert Murdoch for 24-hour access to a television station to market Judeo-Christian religious products, including ESI’s Dead Sea products. The deal did not close.
After learning that GETV had been selling similar Dead Sea products (which was prohibited by the contract’s exclusivity clause), ESI alleged that Hagee personally committed fraud and used his entities “as a sham and cloak to perpetuate and conceal fraud and personally benefited from the fraudulent scheme, wrongs, and injustice on Plaintiffs.” For his part, Hagee argued that ESI breached their contract by failing to deliver 10,000 units of product despite having been paid. The parties did not settle in public.
In 2009, a Bexar County judge dismissed the case because ESI and Hagee agreed to arbitration. Since the results of arbitration are private and normally bound by non-disclosure agreements, it is unclear how the dispute ended. However, what the case makes clear are the growing business implications of Hagee’s advocacy for Israel. From its early days, his ministry worked to monetize its prominence with books, products like ESI’s, and even tallits (Jewish prayer shawls).
After the television empire that was already reaching around 65 million people was folded into Grace Church of San Antonio—an entity that did not need to report on its financial condition in as much detail as its predecessor—asset growth ballooned. According to tax records of GETV and Grace Church of San Antonio, the surviving entity’s assets more than doubled between 2004 and 2008: $18.4 million to $37.9 million after a period of decline and only slowly increasing donations. Those assets have continued to grow. According to 2018 Bexar County property records, Grace Church of San Antonio and Global Evangelism Inc. have property worth a combined $57.4 million. Hagee himself owns three houses in the San Antonio area.
No public record of the growth between 2004 and 2008 exists because religious organizations are not required under the tax code to provide annual reports to the IRS. However, the reason for the spike was likely Hagee’s creation of Christians United for Israel (CUFI) in March 2006. CUFI fused Hagee’s previous activism for Israel into an unstoppable political force. The organization now boasts 4 million members and has hosted more than 2,500 pro-Israel events. It also has a lobbying arm, the CUFI Action Fund, and chapters at college campuses nationwide.
In July 2018, CUFI hosted its annual summit in Washington, D.C. with speakers from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Israeli Ambassador Ron Dermer, to U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz. Like “A Night to Honor Israel,” the summit generated publicity for the pro-Israel movement and raised money for various Israeli causes.
Such donations to Hagee’s organizations and his personal earnings have allowed him to give generously to a variety of causes that interest him. In fact, a considerable portion of Hagee’s donations to Israeli charities are to organizations beyond the pre-1967 border. Spokesperson Ari Morgenstern confirmed to the Israeli paper Haaretz last year that “less than five percent” of Hagee’s donations have gone to settlers on the West Bank. Among those donations is the $1.5 million John Hagee Building, and a $250,000 dormitory at the Har Bracha Yeshiva. Both are in Ariel on the West Bank, where he has also donated unknown amounts to the settlements of Gush Etzion, Shomron, and others.
In addition to Hagee’s theological roots, Norman argued against Jewish ties with Hagee because of his political beliefs. “I think they shouldn’t take the money because it’s part of this statist Zionist project that has genocide as collateral damage,” Norman said. Norman is also an organizer with Jewish Voice for Peace who has attempted to facilitate discussions about the Israel-Palestine conflict, but has often been rebuffed by local leaders.
U.S. policy consistently opposed the continued construction of Israeli settlements in the Occupied Territories on the grounds that such actions would hinder a future peace accord. In one of its last international actions, the Obama administration declined to exercise its veto of a U.N. Security Council resolution condemning Israeli settlements. Although Israel was dismayed as the resolution passed, they were placated by the next administration which had tried to prevent the resolution from coming up for a vote. Yet, President Trump told Yisrael Hayom in Feb. 2018 that settlements would “complicate” a deal between Israelis and Palestinians.
Delivering Theological Legitimacy to Political Goals
“God’s not in heaven saying ‘let’s make a deal.’ God’s in heaven saying ‘this is the deal.’ And the deal is: Israel owns that land! They do not occupy that land! They own that land! I gave it to them!” Hagee boomed in a sermon titled “Israel: God’s Prophetic Clock” in 2017. Ceding land, according to Hagee, will only lead to the destruction of Israel and the Jewish people. The “land for peace” formula is not just theologically impermissible according to Joel 3:2, but also empirically unsuccessful. Hagee has pointed to the Oslo accords and Yitzhak Rabin as an example.
When Yigal Amir assassinated Rabin in 1995 to prevent his government from agreeing to any withdrawals from the West Bank, evangelical Christian Zionists viewed the event through the same lens as 1967. It was an inevitable step toward the rapture. As Hagee explained in Final Dawn over Jerusalem, the assassination “launched Bible prophecy onto the fast track.”
Rabin’s death stopped the peace process and remains the source of numerous conspiracy theories and discord in Israeli society, as This American Life documented in 2015. “From the Left’s perspective, Rabin’s assassination is the moment that completely reshaped Israel’s history. It killed off the last best chance for peace between Israelis and Palestinians. And Yigal Amir has got to be one of the most successful assassins anywhere,” reporter Dan Ephron explained.
That same afternoon in 2017, Hagee described the next phase in reshaping Israel’s history: moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv. He had recently met with President Trump in the Oval Office. “Do you think the Arabs would go to war if I recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel?” Hagee recalled Trump asking him. “No sir, I think it will be exactly the opposite. I think your pronouncing that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel will make the cause of peace be advanced,” Hagee responded.
“You will be remembered 100 years from now not about the fake news attacks, not about the Russians hacking our computers. They will remember that you declared Jerusalem as the capital of Israel,” Hagee exclaimed to Trump. “Now is the set time to honor Israel and God will bless you and scatter your enemies.” President Trump apparently agreed. “He pointed his finger at me just like this, and said ‘Other presidents have promised you and failed you, but I will not fail you,’” Hagee recalled. The embassy opened in Jerusalem on May 14, 2018.
After the success, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu convened a meeting with American evangelicals (including Hagee) to discuss moving other nations’ embassies to Jerusalem. The meeting affirmed the Israeli government’s longstanding ties with American evangelicals, ties that Hagee helped see to fruition.
The president delivered a symbolic victory for his core political base of evangelical Christians, a base whose voice speaks to him through pastors like Hagee in the Oval Office. As the Public Religion Research Institute reported in April, white evangelical support for President Trump remains at an all-time high. 75 percent hold a favorable view, while only 22 percent hold an unfavorable view (42 percent of the general population holds a favorable view of the president). Policies that fortify Trump’s base are critical at a time when he is under pressure for his administration’s approach to trade, immigration, and Russia.
Given the unprecedented demographic changes occuring in the U.S.—white Christians now account for fewer than half of the public—the links between the president and evangelical pastors are even more salient. As evangelicals increasingly see themselves as a beleaguered minority, they will likely generate more fervent support for the president and his allies that can defend the vision that their pastors pioneered.
Perhaps a reason why the president is so well-liked among evangelicals—aside from clear agreement on core conservative policies—is the overlap between his style and that of evangelical pastors like Hagee. Both are brash, compelling, and humorous speakers. Security guards flank their stages. They are identity-driven political actors who present a gloomy picture of the U.S. in decline, and their values or policies as the only solution to what ails the country.
Both run their organizations as family businesses: Matthew Hagee is the heir-apparent to his father’s empire; the president’s sons and daughter already run the Trump organization. The two men also boldly use their positions of power to enhance their family’s business ventures, while at least nominally working toward a greater good. The president’s ventures and conflicts of interests are well-documented, while the true reach of Hagee’s array of nonprofits and personal companies to sell books and memorabilia will remain unknown due to the U.S. tax code.
Above all, Trump and Hagee profess an unwavering commitment to Israel.
“What can you do?” Hagee asked the Cornerstone crowd after describing the threats he sees to the U.S. “You can stand up for America. You can vote for pro-America candidates. If we do not use our freedom to defend our freedom, we will lose our freedom.”
Benjamin Collinger is a senior at Trinity University studying history and international affairs. He is the founder and Editor-in-Chief of The Contemporary.
The views expressed in this article are those of the writer. The Contemporary takes no position on matters of policy or opinion.